Game Developer Salary Survey 2011

By Ryan Newman and Brandon Sheffield [08.04.11]

 [Originally published in Game Developer magazine's free Game Career Guide issue, this annual salary survey provides a comprehensive breakdown of salaries for entry-level developers and beyond.]

Game Developer's salary survey is an objective look at who's earning what in the game industry. Developers of all experience levels and job descriptions give us information about their base salaries, benefits, and so forth. From there we can get the big picture of game developers' salaries. In this special Career Guide edition, we present to you our entry level-focused 10th anniversary salary survey.

As a newcomer to the game industry, what can you expect to earn? That all depends on where you are and what you do, but don't expect instant riches. Very few game developers are rolling in cash, but our survey at least proves you can make a decent living doing what you love.

In 2010, the average salary across all disciplines and experience levels rose $5,244, over 2009. The number of respondents whose salaries increased in 2010 was up across the board, with the biggest increase coming from those in production, 73 percent of whom reported higher income than last year.

This year was one of proving for the social game space, and we believe that contributed somewhat to the overall raise in salary across all disciplines. Social games are also a good place to cut your teeth, since many small companies are making big waves, as the space forms its own set of best practices, outside the confines of the traditional packaged game industry. Meanwhile, the indie segment has continued to rise in prominence as a source of opportunity and employment for those looking for a different path. Last year, we included indie developers and independent contractors in their own listing, a practice we continued this year, though with a slightly lower response.

A major takeaway from the comments section of our survey (available in the April issue of Game Developer) revealed that while, in general, salaried developers are making more money, independent developers are a lot happier with their lot in life. Worth considering when you decide in what way you'd like to enter the game industry.

Programmers

Average Salary - 3 years or less: $55,426

Programmers are the backbone of the industry, and their hard work is certainly rewarded. The profession continues to be one of the highest paid in the industry, though this year coders have been eclipsed by producers in salary levels.

The average salary for programmers of three years experience or fewer rose by over $1,500 this year, a modest increase. Overall though, the salary averages dropped for programmers.

This fall in salary, combined with a rise in the number of respondents in the entry-level categories is likely an indicator that companies are hiring more fresh-faced computer science graduates. This is something to keep in mind as fledgling programmers enter the industry in 2011 and 2012.

Programmers in Canada fared better in 2010, earning $74,473 in 2010, up from $67,937 (USD) in 2009. European programmers also saw a rise, earning $48,230 (USD) on average.



Artists and Animators

Average Salary - 3 years or less: $45,714

The average entry-level salary for artists was up only slightly from last year, and in fact the biggest decrease in 2010 was found amongst lead artists and tech artists with over six years of experience, with their average salary falling to $89,519 in 2010 from $97,206 in 2009.

Young artists are often hired, compartmentalized, and burned out very quickly in the game and film industries, so take care in choosing where you want to go. There may be indies that need you more than the big guys do.

Canadian artists found their salaries increasing on average by $3,877, up to $63,277 (USD). The increase was largely found amongst artists and animators, whose salaries increased from $50,565 in 2009 to $56,630 (USD) in 2010. European artists also found themselves earning more, with an increase of $3,459 from 2009, bringing the average salary up to $41,611 (USD).




Game Designers

Average Salary - 3 Years or Less: $46,214

Game designers, creative directors, and writers received a slight boost from last year. This is an area that many aspiring developers want to move into, but it isn't so easy your first time out. Making some games on your own first can help, but designers are among the worst paid of the creative-side disciplines.

Overall, designers across all experience ranges saw little movement, and design has been one of the most stable positions as far as compensation throughout our survey. 66 percent of those surveyed reported at least a slight increase in pay from last year.

Designers working out of Canada experienced a decrease in pay, with the average salary falling from $61,520 in 2009 to $58,319 (USD) in 2010. European designers also had lower incomes but fared slightly better with an average salary of $41,250 (USD), down $1,173 from 2009.



Producers

Average Salary - 3 Years or Less: $51,324

After an overall average salary dip in 2009, producers rebounded with an increase of $13,462. Seventy-three percent of respondents reported an increase in their salary. This could be due to the fact that over half our respondents reported having over six years of experience, but also may indicate the shift toward social games, which can pay producers web 2.0 salaries. Producers with three years or less experience saw their average salary shoot up some $9,000 in 2010, which is an impressive number for an inexperienced group.

Production also had the second-highest percentage of additional compensation, at 83 percent, second only to business' 85 percent.

Canadian producers reported a significant decrease in salary, with the average dropping from $87,130 in 2009 to $72,500 (USD) in 2010. Producers in Europe had a slight increase in 2010 with an average of $52,884 (USD) and 56 percent reporting a salary increase.




Audio Professionals

Average Salary - 3 Years or Less: $39,375

Of the audio professionals surveyed, 15 percent reported earning less than they did the previous year, the highest of any discipline. There was a slight uptick in respondents this year, in a category that typically has a low response rate due to the low number of full-time audio professionals in games, but numbers are still low, so it is difficult to gauge with absolute certainty.

Audio developers continue to be the least likely to receive additional benefits, such as health insurance. However, they were the most likely to receive royalties for their work, with the reported 25 percent significantly higher than other disciplines, with game design coming in second at 17 percent.

Canadian audio developers reported earning more in 2010, with the average salary increasing from $61,250 to $68,571 (USD). European audio developers reported an increase in average salary, up $6,111 to $46,944, with 50 percent earning more in 2010.



QA Testers

Average Salary - 3 Years or Less - $36,136

Home to many entry-level positions, quality assurance remains one of the lowest-paid disciplines. However, testers were rewarded in 2010 with a modest increase in salary and benefits. Many developers still get their start in QA.

A lot of QA professionals are on contract, so the entire range may not be represented here, and the fact that QA leads are the most likely to be salaried could potentially explain the increase. Like producers though, the bump could come from those working in the web industries, with companies such as Zynga having long-hours QA needs. Web developers in general tend to be paid a little better than their counterparts in traditional video games.

Canadian testers did not benefit as much as those in the United States with the average salary reporting as having dropped from $39,375 to $37,857 (USD) in 2010. European testers benefited from an increase of $7,722, bringing the average salary to $37,222 (USD).




Business and Legal People

Average Salary - 3 Years or Less: $57,778

Those surveyed in the business and legal disciplines include chief executives and executive managers, community managers, marketing, legal, human resources, IT, content acquisition and licensing, and general administration staff.

Those in business were most likely to receive any additional compensation (85 percent). Business not only had the highest average salary, but it also led in average salary across all experience levels. Of the disciplines surveyed, business also had the highest percentage of those with six or more years of experience, at 55.6 percent. As a student, finding a good business partner you can trust early on is crucial, so novice businesspersons are equally in demand.

The business, marketing, and legal arena is also where the second-most women can be found, dwarfed only by production's 17%.

Canadian business personnel fared well with an increased average salary of $85,312 (USD). Business persons in Europe also saw an increase, up from $59,231 to $63,235 (USD) in 2010.


Layoffs

Of the Almost 4,000 surveyed developers, 14 percent had been laid off at one point or another in 2010. That is a 5 percent decrease from 2009's 19 percent, but it is still higher than 2008's 12 percent.

Fifty-two percent of those laid off were able to find employment at a game studio or publisher, while 16 percent were unable to find new jobs in the industry. More developers (23 percent) also found themselves going into contracting and consulting in 2010, up from 17 percent in 2009. Thirteen percent went on to found or cofound a company, up from 10 percent in 2009.

Developers also went into indie development in greater numbers (19 percent), up from 16 percent in 2009. The increased amount of developers going into independent and contract work combined is up 9 percent over 2009, another strong indicator in the rise of development outside the traditional developer-and-publisher venue.

Average Salary By U.S. Region

(across all levels of experience and disciplines)


Top States With Highest Average Salaries

(across all levels of experience, excluding states with low sample size)


Average Salary By U.S. Region By Discipline


Average Salary For Homeowners Vs. Non-Homeowners By U.S. Region


Average Salaries In The U.S., Canada, And Europe

(across all levels of experience, by discipline, given in USD)


*Most Canadian respondents were from British Columbia, Quebec, and Ontario.

**Most European respondents were from the United Kingdom (26%), France (15%), Germany (10%), Spain (9%), The Netherlands (5%), and Italy (5%).


Average Salary By Education Level And Discipline

(across all levels of experience)


The Indie Report

This is the second year of our indie section, which includes independent developers and contractors. Of those segments surveyed, it was independent contractors (not part of a team) who again found themselves at the top of the pile.

Last year's average compensation of $45,137 was bested in 2010 by a significant margin, with independent contractors earning an average of $55,493. Those who were members of a team also fared better in 2010, with an increase of over $6,000 for an average of $26,780. Individual developers were again at the bottom, earning less in 2010 with $11,379.

Of those surveyed, the majority of respondents (52 percent) were designers, while the majority of independent contractors (26 percent) were involved in art. Of those individual developers or members of an indie team, 55 percent made under $500 from the sale of their games in 2010.

Some indie developers make money from sources other than their game, as well. Eighteen percent of individual or team members made additional income from alternative game-related revenue streams. Of those, 16 percent made less than $100, while 23 percent made over $20,000. This additional revenue came in the form of promotions, non-game DLC content, sponsorships, ads, awards, and grants. Of those salaried and independent contractors who responded, 33 percent received an annual bonus, 7 percent royalties, and 10 percent profit sharing, of which 25 percent made under $1,000 while 3 percent made over $100,000.

Interestingly, of almost 500 non-salaried respondents, 63 percent have never worked at a traditional, salary-based game developer. Many students now get their start as an indie developer.

Job Functions

For contractors, we asked respondents to choose the capacity in which they primarily worked in 2010, but for indies, it's a little more complex. Given the "many hats" nature of small-scale development, asking an indie to choose just one discipline is unreasonable. As such, the indie chart should be read as "what percentage of indies do at least this job function," rather than "how many indies do this job exclusively."

Indies By Job Function


Contractors By Job Function


Methodology

Now in its tenth year, the Game Developer Salary Survey was conducted in February 2011 for the fiscal year January 1, 2010 through December 31, 2010 with the assistance of Audience Insights. Email invitations were sent to Game Developer subscribers, Game Developers Conference attendees, and Gamasutra.com members asking them to participate in the survey.

We gathered 3,781 responses from developers worldwide but not all who participated in the survey provided enough compensation information to be included in the final report. We also excluded salaries less than $10,000 and the salaries of students and educators. The small number of reported salaries greater than $202,500 were excluded to prevent their high numbers from unnaturally skewing the averages. We also excluded records that were missing key demographic and classification numbers.

The survey primarily includes U.S. compensation but consolidated figures from Canada and Europe were included. The usable sample reflected among salaried employees in the U.S. was 1,343, for Canada 276, and for Europe 404; and 473 for indies and independent contractors who provided compensation information worldwide.

The sample represented in our salary survey can be projected to the U.S. game developer community with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.7% at a 95% confidence level. The margin of error for salaried employees in Canada is plus or minus 5.9%, and is 4.9% for Europe.

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